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On Martin Luther King’s birthday, after the release of the film “Selma,” and following months of killings of black men and boys by white cops, it is impossible not to understand the death of Eric Garner, choked to death by Staten Island Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo, for the crime of selling untaxed cigarettes, as another instance of white police brutality against men of color.
Defending Pantaelo—and cops who use force generally—New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) President Patrick J. Lynch insists it all has nothing to do with race. An Irish American perpetually trailed by a posse of thickset, identically coiffed white guys, Lynch rarely fails to mention that the force he represents is “majority minority” (it is, at the lower ranks). These multi-culti cops don’t see black or white. They see good guys and bad guys; they protect the “community” from the “criminal element.” New York’s police are not racist, he says. And probably most aren’t.
Still, Lynch has never seen an act of force by a police officer that he deemed excessive or unjustified. Such acts are perpetrated not exclusively by white cops against men of color, but largely. In spite of his protestations—or because of them—Lynch comes off looking like the Last White Man, the latest in a long line of white men holding the barbarians from the gate: the Viscount de Rochambeau in Haiti, William Travis at the Alamo, Bull Connor defending Birmingham from integration, if necessary, to his grave.
But the “man” part of white man is as important as the “white” part. White American manhood has always been entwined with fantasies of black male predation and the defense of pure white womanhood from defilement. That’s why castration was the punishment of choice for black men or boys suspected of crossing the color line.
Today, police enact contests of masculinity with young men every day. The officer accosts a civilian for little or no reason, the civilian is peeved. As in all such standoffs, one guy perceives challenge—disrespect or aggression. Not acknowledging the superior safety his badge and gun afford, the cop feels threatened. Or, puffed up by the superior power they afford, he feels mocked. Now he has grounds for arrest. The civilian’s behavior is the crime of resisting arrest. The cop deploys his power, with club or cuffs, or bullets.
(Female officers, by the way, are far less likely than their male counterparts to use excessive force. They comprised 15 percent of the NYPD in 1997 and 17 percent in 2007, at which rate gender parity will be achieved as the 23rd century approaches.)
When the officer is white and the civilian is black, their exchange resonates back hundreds of years. Who will be castrated, who will be the emasculator? The only hope for the young man of color is preemptive abjection—the stance that experience, history, or his parents have schooled him to adopt.
It’s been a long time since Pat Lynch patrolled the streets. His battle is rhetorical. But unlike de Rochambeau, Travis, or Connor—who were fighting, respectively, African slaves, Mexicans, or Martin Luther King and his army of schoolchildren—Lynch rarely goes mano a mano with a person of color. With the exception of Rev. Al Sharpton, his antagonists are almost always other white men, notably New York Mayors Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, and now, Bill de Blasio.
His sense of injury by the highers-up did not start with de Blasio. Over and over, for years, his Queens-heavy cadence has decried the “disrespect” and “hatred” for law enforcement flowing from downtown Manhattan to the streets of the Bronx and Brooklyn.
He’s not talking about trespasses against chauvinistic respect for women. Lynch is defending the officers’—and by extension, his own—manhood.
The masculinities of Giuliani and Bloomberg matched Lynch’s in predictable—thus answerable—ways. The former prosecutor and the cop, a working-class Italian and a working-class Irishman, duked it out like two C-average Catholic school boys on the playground, as equals. The diminutive, slightly fey Jewish billionaire disregarded the union boss as any corporate titan would any union negotiator—Bloomberg stonewalled and, on behalf of the exploited worker, Lynch shook his fist.
But the union chief is uniquely exorcised by Mayor Bill de Blasio. As a long piece in the New York Times detailed, the mayor is not faultless. He’s committed missteps in his relations with the NYPD. He enraged the union chief by sharing with other New Yorkers—two-thirds of them, in one poll—his frustration over a grand jury’s failure to indict Panteleo in Garner’s killing.
Then the mayor allowed that he and his wife, Chirlane McCray, had delivered “the talk” to their black teenage son, Dante, counseling hyper-politeness in dealing with police, lest the boy be arrested, or worse. To the man who views all critique of the police as oaths of loyalty to the forces of criminal mayhem, who regards every denouncer of racial profiling as an inciter of race warfare, this was a salvo that could not go unreturned.
So when a Baltimore madman made his way to Brooklyn to avenge Garner’s killing by executing two randomly chosen cops, Lynch pointed the finger at City Hall: There was “blood on many hands,” he said, but none were bloodier than the mayor’s.
The union plastered its Web site with barely veiled anti-de Blasio propaganda. “This is what it’s all about,” declared the headline on the opening page. “Self-serving politicians and cynical pundits think that New York City police officers are more concerned about settling a contract than mourning our fallen brothers.” It went on to rally “real New Yorkers,” to “hold accountable all those who have stirred up hatred and violence against police officers.” The words had Lynch’s spit all over them.
Longtime observers of this unparalleled trash talker wondered if he had finally outdone—and undone—himself. Or that the mayor, despite fumbles, had outdone him.
I know guys like Patrick Lynch. I went to high school with them, a lone Jew among working-class Irish, Italian, and Greek Catholics, mostly second-generation Americans whose parents nonetheless looked eastward for their culture and values.
These boys were possessed of a machismo honed—as machismo always is—on the edge of perceived insults by other boys and men. All were on the qui vive for slights; every injury had to be redressed. Sides were taken. Someone always lost the fight; the scores had to be evened. With each altercation the stakes rose. Ever slighter slights were read as provocation. The destructive, self-destructive firestorm could not blow itself out.
In these battles, girls were the property fought over, the innocents protected, the cheerleaders and consolers. But should a girl dare to interfere or object—or, god forbid, laugh!—she might find the insults and blows meant for her defense turning on her. If she was not 100 percent with her boyfriend, she was against him—an assailant, a traitor.
Similarly, in New York, Ferguson, or Cleveland, women are abstract and invisible—the virtuous “community” that the police protect from the criminals. But when an alleged criminal is slain, the women emerge, real mothers, wives, and daughters, angry victims of the victimization of their men, who turn out to be the “community” too.
The protectors feel betrayed, their heroism belittled.
In this drama of race and sexuality, pride and humiliation, de Blasio is a liminal figure. He is a white man in a black family. He is unwaveringly heterosexual, yet he courted a lesbian. Not only is McCray a former lesbian, she is a feminist, a member of the influential black lesbian feminist Combahee River Collective—and a poet to boot.
De Blasio is a heterosexual man who eats pizza with a fork and knife, married to a black lesbian feminist poet whose collaboration he reveals with neither conceit nor apology. The voters knew all this, and they elected him in a landslide.
The mayor is big. He is ambitious. He is smart, and—as his wrangling with Governor Andrew Cuomo attests—no pushover. But he is not a macho man. In response to Lynch’s goading, the mayor will not throw a punch.
This only exasperates Lynch more. He works himself up. He calls the mayor a murderer. And, maybe, the gang at his back on the blacktop starts to wonder if their mouthpiece is nothing but a loudmouth.
Only 850 cops—4 percent of the active force—signed cards distributed by union leadership disinviting the mayor from their own funerals. It is unclear how many turned their backs when de Blasio delivered eulogies at the slain policemen’s memorials. There’s speculation that Lynch could lose the next union election.
Police machismo is not dead. But the injured hypermasculinity embodied by Patrick Lynch is dangerous on the street. On the podium, it looks ever more theatrical, and puny. It is not that cops should be less masculine and more feminine, like those female cops who avoid using force. Rather, they could all be both, or neither—more like Bill de Blasio.
(Feature image: Diana Robinson)
Judith Levine is the author of five books and countless articles exploring politics, policy, and public emotion, especially at the intersection of sex and justice. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and a small town in northeastern Vermont.
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